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ARTIST SERIES STATEMENT
Drowning World is my attempt to explore the effects of climate change in an intimate way, taking us beyond faceless statistics and into the individual experiences of its victims.
A sequence of ‘Submerged Portraits’ is the heart of the project. To make them I often follow my subjects as they return through deep waters, working with them to create an image, usually in their flooded homes. While their pose may be conventional, their environment is disconcertingly altered. My intention is for their unsettling gaze to challenge the viewer, questioning our communal culpability for their plight.
The flood is an ancient metaphor, found within the myths and legends of many cultures. It represents an overwhelming, destructive force that renders humanity powerless in its wake and leaves us seeking refuge. As global warming drives an increasing number of extreme flooding events each year, this message continues to resonate.
I began work on Drowning World in 2007 when I photographed two floods that occurred within weeks of each other, one in the UK and the other in India. I was deeply struck by the contrasting impacts of these floods, and the shared vulnerability that seemed to unite their victims.
Since then I have endeavored to visit flood zones around the world, travelling to Haiti, Pakistan, Australia, Thailand, Nigeria, Germany, the Philippines, and returning again to the UK and India in 2014, in search of these commonalities and differences. My most recent trips were to France in 2016 and in 2015 to Brazil, Bangladesh, and the USA, where I returned to Texas in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. My subjects come from disparate parts of the world, yet they show us their linked vulnerability despite the vast differences in their lives and circumstances.
I choose to shoot the photographs on medium format film, using a set of very old Rolleiflex cameras. Although this can make things difficult while working under the most challenging of circumstances, I believe that it gives the images and resulting prints a distinctive quality.
In a flooded landscape, normality is suspended and life is turned upside down. In the midst of this chaos, my “Floodlines” series express a disconcerting contradiction by finding order and calm in the line drawn by floodwater indoors and outdoors—through intimate living quarters, public spaces, and landscapes turned liquid. The images tend toward geometric abstraction, while my “Submerged Portraits” of flood victims, which I create simultaneously, explore the human catastrophe. Sometimes the waterline is recorded at the height of the flood; at other times the line is a trace left behind as the flood recedes.
Through the years that I have been working on this project my outputs have developed and grown organically and the weight of the video element of Drowning World has gathered momentum, part of a growing engagement with video in my practice. I have made a series of short video installations called the ‘Water Chapters’—one for every country where I have shot video alongside my stills. Looped sequences of these have been shown in galleries, in some circumstances alongside my prints and sometimes alone. Each of the nine ‘chapters’ responds to a flood in one country.
As a culmination of the video element of the project I have created a 5-screen installation entitled “Deluge” that explores the tension between the frozen photographic moment and the perpetual movement and uncertainty of dystopian, post-flood environments.
I have also over the years collected a number of flood-damaged personal snapshots that I have found in a variety of different circumstances in the flooded landscapes that I have visited. Some are anonymous, rescued from the water, and some are linked to particular households. I am increasingly fascinated by the random yet shocking impact that floodwaters have on these photographic surfaces and the implications this may have for the potential loss of communal memory. I have displayed some in vitrines and have also started exhibiting large-scale reproductions of them. I have called this section of the project ‘Watermarks’ and they form an increasingly significant part of the overall endeavor.
As the project has developed, the ‘conversation’ created by juxtaposing images from different floods in different countries at different times has become increasingly interesting for me. The lives and fates of these individuals become linked, and they stand in solidarity amidst a deepening visual complexity.
In a flooded landscape, life is suddenly turned upside down and normality is suspended. With an almost ‘tracing paper’ effect on the societies in which they occur, flood waters often reveal underlying tensions and difficulties as they recede. It is these elements that continue to draw me to flood zones, evoking many questions about our sense of stability in the world.
Drowning World Public Installations